• Research & Reports
June 14, 2021

Canadians React To The Discovery Of Remains At Residential Schools

A poll conducted by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the Assembly of First Nations, and Abacus Data shows that the majority of Canadians believe governments are not doing enough to teach students about the legacy of the residential school system. 

TORONTO, June 15, 2021—The discovery of the remains of 215 First Nation children at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and another discovery of a possible mass grave at the site of the Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba has highlighted the devasting and traumatic impacts of the residential school system, prompting Canadians to express unprecedented support, with 49 percent saying they have a new appreciation of the damage done by residential schools. Canadians also signalled strong support for actions on First Nations-led priorities toward justice, healing, and closing the socio-economic gap. 

Results of a survey released today by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF), the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), and Abacus Data, expose glaring gaps of knowledge and education related to Canada’s history and renew calls to re-examine questions around who should be held accountable.  Polling results identify that 93 percent of Canadians are aware of the discovery of remains at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, with 58 percent of Canadians following the news closely. This is a slight increase (seven percent) in the number of Canadians who were closely following the news on the legacy of residential schools upon the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, nearly six years ago. Despite 72 percent of Canadians being saddened by the news of the mass grave, only 10 percent of Canadians are very familiar with the history of the residential school system.

Thirteen years after the Government of Canada offered a formal apology to the survivors of the residential school system and families, 68 percent of Canadians polled still say they were either unaware of the severity of abuses at residential schools or completely shocked by it.   

“The discovery at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirms what First Nations have been saying for decades, and demands urgent action to support justice and healing for survivors and to end the racist and discriminatory practices, policies and approaches that maintain a socio-economic gap between First Nations and the rest of Canada,” said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde.  “There is an opportunity before every single person in this country to demand and act for change. Increased awareness and attention must be met with increased understanding and real action by governments. I encourage every single person in Canada to join First Nations in honouring the lost children and the survivors and families of residential schools and urge every level of government to fully implement the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.”

The news of the mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School appears to have increased many Canadians’ desire to know more about the historical legacy of residential schools. Sixty-two percent of Canadians believe that provincial education curricula do not include nearly enough about residential schools, and 65 percent believe the level of education around residential schools should increase. Seventy percent of survey respondents say that the framing of residential schools has been downplayed in the education system.

The majority of Canadians are unequivocal about whom should take responsibility for the damage done by the residential school system. Ninety percent of respondents believe that the federal government is liable for the damage caused by residential schools, followed by the Catholic Church (81 percent) and the RCMP (80 percent). Four out of five Canadians would like to see the Pope formally apologize to the survivors of residential schools. Nearly as many want the federal government to offer more funding to identify other possible mass graves at all residential school sites.

“What is clear from the poll’s findings is that several entities have failed not only the Indigenous population but all Canadians,” said Mohammed Hashim, Executive Director for the CRRF.  “While the historical legacy of the residential school system in Canada is shameful, it must be taught, thoroughly analyzed, and embedded within provincial curricula so that something like this is never, ever repeated.  Ignoring this terrible chapter does not only dishonour survivors and victims of the residential school system, it is a dishonour and disservice to the integrity of Canadian society.”

The survey results show apparent differences in views among specific demographics. For instance, 69 percent of young people surveyed (aged 18-29) agree that the residential school policy was an instrument of genocide on the Indigenous population in Canada. Sixty percent of immigrants to Canada surveyed agree. On the political spectrum, 85 percent of left-leaning Canadians would like to see the pace of implementing the TRC calls to action accelerated. Conversely, one in five politically right-leaning Canadians is opposed to quickening the speed of the TRC action points. Eighty-four percent of Canadians believe that they will find more gravesites, while nearly all Indigenous respondents (99 percent) say the discovery of more mass graves is inevitable.

On the heels of the removal of the Egerton Ryerson statue in Toronto and discussions around changing the name of the university named in his honour, appetite is high among Canadians for symbolic measures to erase relics of Canada’s racist past and honour those who were adversely affected by them.  Fifty-eight percent of Canadians want to see buildings and institutions named after the architects of the residential school system renamed.  Sixty-five percent of Canadians would be in support of a national statutory holiday honoring the survivors and victims of the residential school system.

“By margins of greater than three to one, Canadians are telling us they want action on First Nations priorities,” added AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde. “People want to see Canada accelerate progress on the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, invest in efforts to identify all unmarked graves at residential schools, and stop fighting against our children and residential school survivors in court. Decision-makers at all levels must heed these calls for action. These are some of the ways we can truly honour the lives of those who were so tragically lost.”

About the Canadian Race Relations Foundation

The Canadian Race Relations Foundation was created in 1996 to reaffirm the principles of justice and equality for all in Canada. The mandate of the Foundation is to facilitate throughout Canada the development, sharing, and application of knowledge and expertise in order to contribute to the elimination of racism and all forms of racial discrimination in Canadian society.

About Abacus Data

Abacus Data is an innovative, fast-growing public opinion and marketing research consultancy. They use the latest technology, sound science, and deep experience to generate top-flight research-based advice for their clients. They offer global research capacity with a strong focus on customer service, attention to detail, and exceptional value.  Abacus Data was one of the most accurate pollsters conducting research during the 2019 Canadian Election.

About the Assembly of First Nations

The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization representing 634 First Nations in Canada.

For media inquiries, please contact

Kimberly Bennett
Director of Communication
Canadian Race Relations Foundation
Email: kbennett@crrf-fcrr.ca
Phone: 437 533 1104

Jenna Young Castro
Director of Communications
Assembly of First Nations
Email: jyoungcastro@afn.ca
Phone: 613 314 8157

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